Can We Get Ahead of the Next COVID-19 Crisis for Working Moms?

It's time we make the changes necessary to prevent long-term burnout and exhaustion for working moms.

Westend61/ Getty Images
Westend61/ Getty Images

Many of us, myself a mother of two under the age of 4 included, are desperate for schools to reopen. Like you, I long for my children to learn from a professional, in person, in a world where I can make it through eight uninterrupted hours of work instead of making snacks.  

The data has caught up to something many of us working moms already knew: there are days when we feel like we just can’t function and, as it turns out, neither can our economy. It’s no wonder when nearly a third of working Americans have school-aged children. 

If a mere blizzard in the Northeast drains $1.3 billion worth of productivity from the economy in a single day, what did people think was going to happen when we shut down schools in perpetuity amidst a global pandemic? 

Burned out working moms, and the businesses they lead and work for, have been pinning their hopes on fall school reopenings, and that’s a dangerous mistake. We are entering a period of high burnout risk masquerading as a reprieve. 

School reopenings will help in fits and starts, but they’re not the silver bullet many are banking on. We need to start planning now or find ourselves in the midst of a working-mom burnout crisis that will ricochet through our entire economy.

Pre-pandemic, the Pew Research Center reported that 56% of working parents were already struggling to make it all work. To put that into perspective, that’s over 26 million members of our workforce, ages 25-54, who described juggling work and caregiving responsibilities as “difficult” or “tricky” in a non-coronavirus-world. One where schools and daycares were open daily. 

Then just weeks into widespread, pandemic-related school closures, Fortune reported back in mid-April that an estimated 14% of American working women had quit or considered quitting their job since the pandemic began. We’re at risk of losing some of our best talent to burnout and losing ground on a half-century of progress for women’s professional achievement, leadership, and earnings in the process. Working moms in the U.S. already make as little as 69 cents for each dollar earned by working dads. We simply cannot afford a backslide. 

Preparing for the new crush

If the monotony of being a working parent, a stay-at-home parent, and a teacher all at the same time felt crushing, the pinballing of school constantly opening and shutting will bring new challenges. Especially when you add siblings in different grades and schools, or teachers with their own kids at different schools, into the mix. It only takes one sick parent, teacher, or kid to reasonably close schools with minimal warning for weeks. 

This, just as businesses are looking to school reopenings as a greenlight to resume “business as usual,” reopening offices and reducing flex arrangements. Such misaligned expectations are a recipe for disaster for working moms. Especially at a moment some are already calling the “she-cession” to describe how women are being uniquely impacted by the double-whammy of the pandemic and its economic recession. 

Will moms give up?

I hope not, but as schools continue to open and close, life is going to become even more inconsistent and unpredictable. Working moms are already breaking under the pressure of caring for kids, doing their jobs, and then having to prove they’re pulling their weight at work. 

According to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women & Public Policy program, known mothers and visibly pregnant women are consistently “judged as being less committed to their jobs, less dependable, less authoritative, more emotional, and more irrational than otherwise equal, non-pregnant female managers” and their male counterparts. It’s a phenomenon called “the maternity penalty.” While it’s nothing new, it has certainly intensified in a COVID-19 world and could get even worse come Fall. 

What organizations can do today

Instead of planning for the return to normal with school reopenings, organizations must make new plans today so they’re not caught flat-footed with working-mom-attrition tomorrow. Businesses must extend, reinstate, or reimagine policies around telecommuting and remote work, paid time off, flex schedules, liberal leave and, importantly, performance evaluations. They must be prepared for more sudden changes, and for all of their parents to have kids at home and at school at different times. 

The businesses playing the long game on their people will benefit from short-term wins along the way: increased productivity and performance, decreased burnout-related attrition, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build trust and loyalty. 

School reopenings aren’t the silver bullet for burned-out working moms, their organizations, or our economy. Let’s prepare for that today to prevent mass working-mom attrition tomorrow. 

Specializing with working women and mothers, Randi Braun is an executive coach, consultant, speaker and the Founder of Something Major. Randi’s insights have been featured in Forbes, The Washington Post, and Parents Magazine. A working mom of two under 4, Randi lives in Washington, D.C.

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